Sea Bass Marinated in Herbs and Spices: Istanbul Fish Poetry


Istanbul Fish

In Istanbul fish is a poetry recited to the whisper of the blue Bosphorus waves and silent vastness of the Black Sea by the terse fishermen who go to the sea to find the world’s wisdom in the salty waters. They would keep the found wisdom to themselves and you could only dimly guess which marine secrets are hidden on the fish stalls at the local markets spotted with the shimmering scales and turned outside deep red gills attesting the freshness of the catch.

Every time when at the Kadıköy market I check out the fish stalls even though not every day I have an intention to make a purchase. When browsing the fish stalls it is easy to feel idle and looked down by the busy fishmongers and customers examining the fish, inquiring on the freshness and then waiting in the queue as their fish gets peeled, wrapped in a paper bag and handed in to them – they leave with dignity and anticipation of a marvelous fish dinner at home.

Now imagine how glorious I feel when accompanied by a friend and plans for a good evening with fish and raki we march to the Kadıköy market and right to the fish stalls lit up by the many bulbs reflected on the fish scales and make up our mind as we inspect the fish. Large whiting (mezgit) to enjoy tender white flesh cooked in the oven or small red mullet (barbunya) to fry and fuss with delicious oily flesh as you pick the bones? Simple sea bass (levrek) or monstrous-looking red snapper (kırlangıç)? Fried or baked? Stuffed or done as a fillet? Marinated and how? So many questions and choices to make! Let’s talk about them one by one and start with sea bass today.

Sea bass (levrek) is a fish with tender white flesh popular all around the Mediterranean – both in restaurants and for home cooking. Its popularity drives the commercial farming with Turkey being one of the major producers: this means that sea bass can be found in the menu of Istanbul fish restaurants or stalls of the local fish markets throughout the year. Sea bass is a safe bet for grilling, baking or steaming. As Istanbul gourmets are rather purists in their preferences when you dine at an Istanbul fish restaurant you mostly find sea bass grilled and served on a bed of fresh rocket with a wedge of lemon. However when cooking at home I prefer to go more creative so I marinade the fish in herbs and olive oil and then bake it. In particular, I love chemoula, a North African marinade that marries the Mediterranean fresh herbs with the Middle Eastern spices. Every time I cook fish with chermoula I am thinking how centuries back fish in Istanbul would be cooked in a similar fashion and drawing a map of the the Ottoman empire in a pot with the flavors brought from the far away lands once a part of it.

Sea Bass Marinated and Baked in Chermoula

Tender white-fleshed sea bass cooked in the marinade that marries the Mediterranean fresh herbs with the Middle Eastern spices.

Sea Bass in Chermoula

Prep Time: 1 Hr 15 Min
Cook Time:
20 Min

Serves: 4


  • 4 sea basses (cleaned and trimmed)
  • 1 red onion chopped fine half rings
  • 2 garlic cloves coarsely chopped
  • 40 fresh coriander finely chopped (including the stalks)
  • 80 fresh parsley finely chopped (including the stalks)
  • 2 tsp ground sweet paprika
  • 23 tsp ground cumin
  • 23 tsp ground coriander
  • 23 tsp ground turmeric
  • 23 tsp chili powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 100 gram olive oil
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice


  1. Marinade sea bass: Combine all the ingredients but the olive oil in a mixing bowl, mix well with your hands so they start giving juice. Add olive oil and mix the chermula marinade well. Get a deep flat baking pyrex bowl wide enough for 4 fishes to be laid out (better not to pile them up when baking). Stuff each fish with the chermoula marinade, put some chermoula at the bottom of the pyrex dish, lay out the sea basses next to each other and spread remaining chermoula on top. Close the bowl with stretch film and let refrigerate for 1 hour.
  2. Bake fish: Take the fish out of the fridge and bake for 20 minutes at the 220C.
{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Vicky June 1, 2012, 9:57 pm

    I came across your blog from the link provided on The Road Forks website (they had written a post about the cooking class they took with you). My boyfriend and I are planning to start our backpacking trip this fall so I’ve been following along various travel blogs. Aside from travel my other passion is food, and cooking specifically – I also run a food blog ( Sea bass is one of my favorite fish, and I frequently make a steamed sea bass with an asian sauce but I’m always looking for new sea bass recipes. This one sounds absolutely delicious! How big is each fish over there? Here in the US each one is about 450 grams.

    • Olga Tikhonova June 1, 2012, 11:25 pm

      Hi Vicky! Thanks for stopping by. Great blog you’ve got: I like the ingredients you use and how you use them so I can relate to your way of cooking and eating a lot. Sea bass here would be about 300 g on an average. Let me know how it goes with the recipe.


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